“I saw how he looked at you,” he said.
“I like how he looks at me!” I practically shouted.
He shook his head, that bitter smile still playing on his lips. I wanted to smack it right off his face.
“Just admit it,” he sneered. “He owns you.”
“He owns you, too, Mal,” I lashed back. “He owns us all.”
That wiped away his smile.
“No he doesn’t,” Mal said fiercely. “Not me. Not ever.”
“Oh really? Don’t you have someplace to be, Mal? Don’t you have orders to follow?”
Mal stood up straight, his face cold. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do.”
He turned sharply and walked out the door.
For a moment, I stood there, quivering with anger, and then I ran to the doorway. I got all the way down the steps before I stopped myself. The tears that had been threatening to overflow finally did, coursing down my cheeks. I wanted to run after him, to take back what I’d said, to beg him to stay, but I’d spent my life running after Mal. Instead, I stood in silence and let him go.
ONLY WHEN I WAS in my room, the door closed securely behind me, did I let my sobs overtake me. I slid to the floor, my back pressed against the bed, my arms around my knees, trying to hold myself together.
By now, Mal would be leaving the palace, traveling back to Tsibeya to join the other trackers hunting Morozova’s herd. The distance widening between us felt like a palpable thing. I felt further from him than I had in all the lonely months that had gone before.
I rubbed my thumb over the scar on my palm. “Come back,” I whispered, my body shaking with fresh sobs. “Come back.” But he wouldn’t. I’d as good as ordered him to leave. I knew I would probably never see him again, and I ached with it.
I don’t know how long I sat there in the dark. At some point I became aware of a soft knocking at my door. I sat up straight, trying to stifle my sniffling. What if it was the Darkling? I couldn’t bear to see him now, to explain my tears to him, but I had to do something. I dragged myself to my feet and opened the door.
A bony hand snaked around my wrist, seizing me in an iron grip.
“Baghra?” I asked, peering at the woman standing at my door.
“Come,” she said, pulling at my arm and glancing over her shoulder.
“Leave me alone, Baghra.” I tried to pull away from her, but she was surprisingly strong.
“You come with me now, girl,” she bit out. “Now!”
Maybe it was the intensity of her gaze or the shock of seeing fear in her eyes, or maybe I was just used to doing what Baghra said, but I followed her out the door.
She closed it behind us, keeping hold of my wrist.
“What is this? Where are we going?”
Instead of turning right and heading toward the main staircase, she dragged me in the opposite direction to the other end of the hall. She pressed a panel in the wall, and a hidden door swung open. She gave me a shove. I didn’t have the will to fight her, so I stumbled down the narrow spiral staircase. Every time I looked back at her, she gave me another little push. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, Baghra stepped in front of me and led me down a cramped hallway with bare stone floors and plain wooden walls. It looked almost naked compared to the rest of the Little Palace, and I thought we might be in the servants’ quarters.
Baghra grabbed hold of my wrist again and tugged me into a dark, empty chamber. She lit a single candle, locked and bolted the door, then crossed the room and reached up on her tiptoes to draw closed the curtain on the tiny basement window. The room was sparsely furnished with a narrow bed, a simple chair, and a washbasin.
“Here,” she said, shoving a pile of clothes at me. “Put these on.”
“I’m too tired for lessons, Baghra.”
“No more lessons. You must leave this place. Tonight.”
I blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m trying to keep you from spending the rest of your life as a slave. Now get changed.”
“Baghra, what’s going on? Why did you bring me down here?”
“We don’t have much time. The Darkling is close to finding Morozova’s herd. Soon he will have the stag.”
“I know,” I said, thinking of Mal. My heart ached, but I also couldn’t resist feeling a little smug. “I thought you didn’t believe in Morozova’s stag.”
She waved her arm as if brushing away my words. “That’s what I told him. I hoped that he might give up the stag’s pursuit if he thought it was nothing but a peasant tale. But once he has it, nothing will be able to stop him.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation. “Stop him from doing what?”
“Using the Fold as a weapon.”
“I see,” I said. “Does he also plan to build a summer home there?”
Baghra seized hold of my arm, “This isn’t a joke!”
There was a desperate, unfamiliar edge to her voice, and her grip on my arm was nearly painful. What was wrong with her?
“Baghra, maybe we should go to the infirmary—”
“I’m not sick and I’m not insane,” she spat. “You must listen to me.”
“Then talk sense,” I said. “How could anyone use the Shadow Fold as a weapon?”
She leaned into me, her fingers digging into my flesh. “By expanding it.”
“Right,” I said slowly, trying to extricate myself from her grasp.
“The land that the Unsea covers was once green and good, fertile and rich. Now it is dead and barren, crawling with abominations. The Darkling will push its boundaries north into Fjerda, south to the Shu Han. Those who do not bow to him will see their kingdoms turned to desolate wasteland and their people devoured by ravening volcra.”
I gaped at her in horror, shocked by the images she had conjured. The old woman had clearly lost her mind.
“Baghra,” I said gently, “I think you have some kind of fever.” Or you’ve gone completely senile. “Finding the stag is a good thing. It means I can help the Darkling destroy the Fold.”
“No!” she cried, and it was almost a howl. “He never intended to destroy it. The Fold is his creation.”
I sighed. Why had Baghra picked tonight to lose all touch with reality? “The Fold was created hundreds of years ago by the Black Heretic. The Darkling—”
“He is the Black Heretic,” she said furiously, her face mere inches from mine.
“Of course he is.” With some effort, I pried her fingers loose and stepped past her to the door. “I’m going to go find you a Healer and then I’m going to bed.”
“Look at me, girl.”
I took a deep breath and turned around, my patience at an end. I felt sorry for her, but this was just too much. “B aghra—”
The words died on my lips.
Darkness was pooling in Baghra’s palms, the skeins of inky blackness floating into the air.
“You do not know him, Alina.” It was the first time she had ever used my name. “But I do.”
I stood there watching dark spirals unfurl around her, trying to comprehend what I was seeing. Searching Baghra’s strange features, I saw the explanation clearly written there. I saw the ghost of what must have once been a beautiful woman, a beautiful woman who gave birth to a beautiful son.
“You’re his mother,” I whispered numbly.
She nodded. “I am not mad. I am the only person who knows what he truly is, what he truly intends. And I am telling you that you must run.”
The Darkling had claimed he didn’t know what Baghra’s power was. Had he lied to me?
I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts, trying to make sense of what Baghra was telling me. “It’s not possible,” I said. “The Black Heretic lived hundreds of years ago.”
“He has served countless kings, faked countless deaths, bided his time, waiting for you. Once he takes control of the Fold, no one will be able to stand against him.”
A shiver went through me. “No,” I said. “He told me the Fold was a mistake. He called the Black Heretic evil.”
“The Fold was no mistake.” Baghra dropped her hands and the swirling darkness around her melted away. “The only mistake was the volcra. He did not anticipate them, did not think to wonder what power of that magnitude might do to mere men.”
My stomach turned. “The volcra were men?”
“Oh yes. Generations ago. Farmers and their wives, their children. I warned him that there would be a price, but he didn’t listen. He was blinded by his hunger for power. Just as he is blinded now.”
“You’re wrong,” I said, rubbing my arms, trying to shake the bone-deep cold stealing through me. “You’re lying.”
“Only the volcra have kept the Darkling from using the Fold against his enemies. They are his punishment, a living testimony to his arrogance. But you will change all that. The monsters cannot abide sunlight. Once the Darkling has used your power to subdue the volcra, he will be able to enter the Fold safely. He will finally have what he wants. There will be no limit to his power.”
I shook my head. “He wouldn’t do that. He would never do that.” I remembered the night he’d spoken to me by the fire in the broken-down barn, the shame and sorrow in his voice. I’ve spent my life searching for a way to make things right. You’re the first glimmer of hope I’ve had in a long time. “He said he wants to make Ravka whole again. He said that—”
“Stop telling me what he said!” she snarled. “He is ancient. He’s had plenty of time to master lying to a lonely, naive girl.” She advanced on me, her black eyes burning. “Think, Alina. If Ravka is made whole, the Second Army will no longer be vital to its survival. The Darkling will be nothing but another servant of the King. Is that his dream of the future?”
I was starting to shake. “Please stop.”
“But with the Fold in his power, he will spread destruction before him. He will lay waste to the world, and he will never have to kneel to another King again.”
“All because of you.”
“No!” I shouted at her. “I wouldn’t do that! Even if what you’re saying is true, I would never help him do that.”
“You won’t have a choice. The stag’s power belongs to whoever slays it.”
“But he can’t use an amplifier,” I protested weakly.
“He can use you,” Baghra said softly. “Morozova’s stag is no ordinary amplifier. He will hunt it. He will kill it. He will take its antlers, and once he places them around your neck, you will belong to him completely. You will be the most powerful Grisha who has ever lived, and all that newfound power will be his to command. You will be bound to him forever, and you will be powerless to resist.”
It was the pity in her voice that undid me. Pity from the woman who’d never allowed me a moment’s weakness, a moment’s rest.
My legs gave way, and I slid to the floor. I covered my head with my hands, trying to block out Baghra’s voice. But I couldn’t stop the Darkling’s words from echoing through my mind.